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Thursday, December 22, 2011

The killer badgers of Basra

Honey Badgers

BASRA, Iraq — Nazariya al-Muwamara, they call it in Arabic: the conspiracy theory. As they go, this one is a gem.

Take a Western army wearing out its welcome in the ancient land of Mesopotamia. Add a large, sharp-toothed creature halfway between a bear and the Hound of the Baskervilles. Simmer in the 120-degree Fahrenheit (49-Celsius) temperatures of summer and sprinkle with provincial Iraqi newspapers eager to fill newsprint gaps left by vacationing government officials.

The result? Many residents of the southern city of Basra have convinced themselves that the British Army has loosed savage cattle-eating badgers onto its unsuspecting populace as a final gesture of ill intent before it departs the city later this summer.

Throw in, for good measure, the fervent belief that British soldiers have planted snake eggs in waterways and unleashed bomb-sniffing dogs purposefully infected with rabies.

All three stories have been manufactured by Iraq's tireless rumor mill, the only machine here seemingly capable of functioning day and night without need of electricity or generators.

Iran has gotten in on the act as well, claiming that Western forces have been fitting Iraqi squirrels with miniaturized surveillance devices and sending them scurrying across the border to spy.

"In recent weeks, intelligence operatives have arrested 14 squirrels within Iran's borders," IRNA, the Iranian state-sponsored news agency, reported. "The squirrels were carrying spy gear of foreign agencies, and were stopped before they could act, thanks to the alertness of our intelligence services."

As for the badgers, the distinction between reality and fiction has been somewhat blurred by the fact that some of the animals do actually live around Basra. That much is verifiable. But many of the deeds and intent ascribed to the creatures are not.

One Basra farmer claimed the beasts attacked his cattle. Panic spread, with other reports of one killing humans.

The alarm was heightened by the rapid circulation of a cellphone video showing one fearsomely clawed animal captured and surrounded by nervous villagers, who invoked the name of Shia Islam's first and most-revered imam: "What's that? Help us, Ali!"

The British were soon blamed, perhaps aided by the unfortunate coincidence that one of the British Army units serving in the city center is named Badger Squadron.

The reality, Iraqi officials point out, is that the badger, named Kirta or Gariri in Arabic, has been a native of the marshland area around Basra for decades. Less commonly seen after Saddam Hussein drained the marshes, it has reappeared as the wetlands returned.

"Old people know of the Girta, but the younger generations are not as aware of these animals," said Mushtaq Abdul-Aziz of Basra's Health Department.

Major Mike Shearer, a British military spokesman in Basra, rebutted all animal-related allegations with an admirably straight face: "Of course we categorically deny that we have released badgers into Basra. "It flies in the face of what we are primarily here to do, which is to set conditions that will enable the Iraqi security forces to have self-determination in their own security matters, which of course sets the conditions for good governance."

A spokeswoman for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office was somewhat more succinct in denying the rumor. "Don't be silly," she said, after sighing.

At the British headquarters, commanders have weightier matters to consider. On senior officers' desks sit copies of Carl von Clausewitz's 1832 treatise "On War" and David Galula's colonial-era French manual "Counterinsurgency Warfare." Neither is definitive on the deployment of baby-eating monsters or surveillance squirrels.

Asked whether coalition forces were ever likely to have been as welcome in Iraq as pre-war optimists hoped, one senior British officer shook his head wearily. "It would have been difficult, given the conspiracy mindset," he said. "Just look at the badgers."


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